Stonewall: the road to hell is paved with blockbuster intentions
BY DREW ROWSOME-
"For every movement and every injustice, there is a moment that changes history," and for every movement and every injustice, there is a movie that celebrates it and brings it to the masses. What Stonewall attempts is breathtaking. And probably impossible. A rousing action film about that tinderbox moment that ignited gay liberation is a worthy and brave endeavour. Roland Emmerich, who specializes in epics (Stargate, Independence Day, 1998's Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012), assigned himself this task and made a sincere and valiant effort.
Stonewall thrives on, and suffers from, everything endemic to a blockbuster film. It hews to the Joseph Campbell The Power of Myth/Harry Potter formula: an ordinary or fallen (but gifted or chosen) youth separated from his family, experiences great suffering, hardships and trials before leading his people into victorious battle. Yes, on one level Stonewall is an earthbound Star Wars or Jason and the Argonauts, with drag queens, political activists who want to talk instead of using their fists, and predatory older homosexuals instead of sirens, and New York's finest instead of a cyclops.
Unfortunately the central character, the Luke Skywalker, Jason or Harry, is the bland Jeremy Irvine, who acts as if he is in a rush to drag his abs and wooden ass back to an Abercrombie & Fitch photo shoot. The coming out tale, parts of which are very well done, is at odds with the sweep of the Stonewall story, and the two never quite meld together. So when Irvine's Danny throws the first brick, it is a moment that doesn't achieve the emotional resonance that would make the political offensiveness of the historical inaccuracy an acceptable bit of poetic license.
There is a moment, when the riots begin and the crowd surges, that touches the exuberant, vengeful power Emmerich is going for, but, alas, it is fleeting and the audience is denied the catharsis of Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives or the Priscilla gang conquering the outback. Jonny Beauchamp, as compelling here as he was in Penny Dreadful, is the heart of the film, and it is horrifying that he is pushed aside into a helpless female role, a tragic drag queen in need of rescue.
When Danny tells Ray that they can never be together and the sole reasoning, which it is assumed we just accept, is that Ray is a drag queen and not masculine enough, the politcal tone-deafness of Stonewall hits its peak. We have already seen Ray rescue our hapless hero from the clutches of the elderly and effeminate Queen Tooney (Canadian Richard Jutras who at least. representing some form of hope, is still standing at the end of the riots) and the cross-dressing overweight trick who is shot from below to appear loathsome, monstrous and possibly to be J Edgar Hoover.
Ray is beaten and suffers but he always, with true gay resilience, bounces back, never losing his erotic spark. Danny is horrified by the group sex in the meatpacking district, suffers through a blow job from a trick and is utterly passive and non-responsive during the film's one, and all too brief and chaste, sex scene. Just what inspires him to throw the brick?
There is a third storyline involving the FBI, the police, and the owner of the Stonewall Inn. It involves a blackmail ring using underage bar patrons as bait. As part of Stonewall the film, it feels shoehorned in to amp up the drama, as part of Stonewall the history, it turns out to be true. I would like to thank Emmerich for leading me to search out the full story, previously unknown to me, and to drop the hint that it would, especially if the amazing Ron Perlman could be persuaded to reprise his role as Ed Murphy, make for a very intriguing film.
Perhaps Emmerich did achieve his goal. Stonewall does make the case that an epic action movie that happens to be about gays, can be as accomplished and involving as any other mainstream action movie - that is either praise or a condemnation. If one was transfixed by Transformers, Armageddon or Avengers: Age of Ultron, Stonewall will be a similar treat. But if the racism, homophobia, inanity, and focus on one representative hero (white, handsome and butch) of the majority of popcorn flicks gets in the way of that enjoyment...
I really wanted to like Stonewall and on some level, I still have that hunger for any sort of gay representation. Stonewall didn't satisfy that craving but, if it were to blockbust its way into the mainstream, I can't decide if I am ok with trading off the political objections for the chance that Stonewall would touch the hearts and influence the attitudes of the neanderthal demographic that action films are designed for.
Stonewall may not be perfect, but Emmerich has thrown a brick and that is a step forward.